Story Shaping

It’s a Minefield out there

Film and television are such complicated things, involving as it does our eyes, ears, emotions, etc, it’s very difficult to set any hard and fast rules about how to make a programme. The consensus of directors is that it’s just good taste, and knowing what people want. Both of those can be acquired with experience, they say, and in no other way. There are good young producers and directors, some of them very good, but most of us have to leam to walk before we can run. A few ‘sort of rules might help:

Why This Story

Keep in mind the news tag – why are you doing this story today. Is the subject brand new, just been invented? Did it happen this moming? If you know the answer to that question, it’ll be much easier to shape your story. You also need to keep in mind the point of the story. What is it you’re trying to say? Bear that in mind at all times and don’t try to get in other stories at the same time. Don’t clutter the main issue with too much detai I.

Three Parts

Like any good story, a television programme must have a beginning, a middle and an end. The start and the end of your programme are the most important. Get a good exciting beginning, and the impression your viewer gets is ‘this looks worth watching’. A good pacey ending will leave him or her thinking ‘that was pretty good, must remember to watch next week’. You can’t quite give them tat in the middle, but save the best bit for last and the second best bit for the beginning.

The Beginning

A popular joumalists’ maxim is ‘intrigue then inform’. It’s not a bad director’s maxim either. Whatever you decide to do, the beginning must grab the viewer. The channel change knob is next to the off switch. The first sequence might take the form of a fast music and stunning picture sequence; a bit of arresting historical footage; a direct appeal to the viewer (“One in four of the people watching this programme is liable to die of AIDS in the next year”); or a promise of forbidden fruit – ”The nudity in this programme might shock you”we’ve all got a prurient interest in that sort of thing.

The Topic

The viewer then needs to know the general direction your programme is heading. Like all rules, this one is often ignored, sometimes with good results.

The Middle

This is probably the most difficult bit to deal with. Some rules are easy e.g.


And just as easy to break. There are many ways round the problem of how to shape a programme, and your researches will certainly help.


I’m not going to go deeply into research. It’s a very specialist subject in itself. If you’re working on anything lengthy you’ll be working with a researcher and/or reporter anyway. You might well have years of experience as a researcher yourself. If not, there are many books that will help you. One golden rule, is to talk over the shape of your programme with someoneresearcher, editor, reporter or even someone at home. Try it. So often in the past I’ve had this sort of conversation: A:      Hey, what about trying to get one of our presenters on the first trip to the moon! B:      Don’t be daft. But we’ve got a programme on launch day. What about making our own moon. A:      You mean in the studio. But would it be anything like the real one? I know. We could get Patrick Moore. He’d tell us how to build it. B:      And we could get him in the studio. He’d be a sort of seal of approval. And fill in if there’s a hold-up. What about the moon buggy? There’s a spare one at the British Museum. A:      That’s good. And visual. Patrick’s fine, but a moon buggy’s prettier. What about something from 2001? B:      Don’t know. But didn’t you interview Arthur Clarke when you were in Sri Lanka. Could you look at that and see if it’s worth lifting a bit? A:      Might he clash with Patrick Moore? We’ve got a programme on launch day. What about Derek pressing the ‘fire’ button to launch it? B:      Don’t think they’d wear it. But why not try? Could we get him out there quickly enough? Better check before we get onto the PR people at the embassy. And so on….

Don’t be afraid of Silly Ideas

They often trigger off things in other people’s minds that in turn switch yours to an even bigger and better idea. This talking things over with someone is a very powerful weapon, but you can do something of the sort on your own if you need to: Write down as many subheadings as possible – without passing judgement on any of the ideas. Pare down the points until you are left with as many as you need. Or will fit into the time allowed. If in doubt, work on too many and cut out the dross later. Work on the first point you have selected using all the data, contacts, statistics, anecdotes, references, dates and questions you can find. Do the same with all your points. Consider what sort of building block you’ll use to convey each point; is it best told to the viewer in terms of;
  • an interview
  • a piece to camera by your reporter/presenter
  • a sequence or sequences with commentary
  • a music sequence
  • a ‘reconstruction’ – mini drama as for Crimewatch or similar
Obviously there are variations on each of those themes, but they are the rough building blocks of a television programme. Now write your list of ingredients on separate cards. A colour code system helps if you’re dealing with a longish programme – white for interviews, red for music montages, blue for demonstrations of the device; whatever suits the sort of programme you’re doing. A chat show is a different sort of animal from a heavy series on nineteenth century philosophers, but each needs light and shade in its content. Now make sure you’ve got a good mix; not all the interviews at the front, etc.


Now worry about excitement level. Consider a football match; if one team is seven goals ahead in the first half, the crowd loses interest and starts leaving early. The climax of the game and the outcome have already occurred. Don’t let the viewer switch off early. If you can, find ways of signalling that excitement is on it’s way. Rearrange your cards if you need to. Bear in mind that the trump card is nearly always best played right at the end. And it’s even better if you’ve let the viewer know it’s coming.

The End

This is your last point and your final opportunity to get through – to convince, persuade, or to arouse your audience. Your last opportunity to achieve your intention. The climax can be created in several ways, depending on the type of programme you’re making: If it’s an obituary you might want to try a pithy statement from the subject; one which sums up his philosophy of life. This won’t always work, of course, but there are usually other compensators. Marilyn Monroe wasn’t a great philosopher; her most famous quote is a reply to a reporter’s question Ols it true that you posed for the photographer with nothing on?O OOh no, that’s not true at allO, she replied. 01 had the radio onO. If Marilyn hadn’t been so kind as to give you a memorable quote, you’d have still been able to have a good ending. Luckily Elton John wrote a fine song in her memory ‘Candle in the wind’. Obviously the thing to do here is use the song with pictures of Marilyn at her best and/or looking wistful plus maybe a candle at the end being blown out. clich_ yes, but what the hell. There are many others pieces of ‘personal music – ‘Starry Starry Night’ for van Gogh, for instance. Circularity is a useful device in a documentary. You set out to prove or show something. The beginning might well contain a statement of intent or intrigue’the day the river caught fire’. It might even be the title or subtitle of the piece. At the end, you might want to use (or replay) your best pictures of the fire and write a commentary line like” ….and truth to tell, it WAS the day the river caught fire”. Dramas, even dramatised documentaries, often end with a short scene resolving the events of the episode or film. This might be humorous, a bucket of water accidentally falling on the hero who’s just rescued the damsel in distress from drowning, and who has changed into his best dinner jacket for an evening out with her, or it might be a cliff-hanger for the next episode or follow-up film. Did James Bond really put paid to the baddie who wants to take over the earth, or did Goldwhatsit escape just in the nick of time? In a variety spectacular, there seem to be two main endings: Either the host or main act will sing his or her latest heart wrenching hit, or the whole cast gathers for a well-known number. A trail for next week is often a good way to end a magazine programme. Sell, don’t inform is the motto here, as it should be with all trailers. ”There’s a twelve foot deep laugh…. and you’ll be able to see the biggest mistake in the world.” is a better crowd puller than “Cliff will be helping to dig the foundations for a sunken fence, and I’ll be in Argyle visiting a huge stone edifice”. You may care to consider a different look to the future for ‘ecological’ or ‘science’ programmes. You’ve shown that the ozone layer is vanishing, and the greenhouse effect that results, threatening to melt the ice cap and drown all low lying areas in the next few years. You’ve shown that it’s possible to make aerosols with harmless propellant (at a price). Now what will happen? Will the governments of the world act together to ban these things before it’s too late? A simulated flooding sequence might be tried here, but would it seem too fake dramatic? Maybe the stark question on it’s own is enough. There are many sorts of endings, but the main rule is to make the viewer think he or she has seen something really enjoyable or memorable. It’s curious, that after all that work, you’ll often come back to your first instinctive thoughts. They’re often correct, but you’ll be better for having gone ’round the houses’ to get back to where you started.

Talk to your dog

Now, having considered your plot, explain it so someone. This is a wonderful way of clearing your mind. You will be asked very awkward questions – “Just what do you mean by a forest fire – where are you going to get one?”. If nobody will listen, and at first (indeed for quite a while) in television, you will be supervised by someone whose job it is to listen, try your dog. Not cat – cats always think their ideas are best. Even dogs aren’t perfect; take what they say with a pinch of salt especially if you’re dealing with a labrador – they’re far too eager to please. Back to real life now. You’re nearly ready to shoot. The last stage is the storyboard. Even the best director needs a storyboard – don’t think that it’s a bit silly, only done by directors who are wearing L plates. Hitchcock used to work to a most detailed storyboard (and would never change a frame during shooting); others work from a mental board (probably only possible after years of practice from the paper version). Then, on location, be prepared to do something different. Hitchcock was shooting drama, in control of (nearly) everything; a documentary director must be prepared to alter the shoot as things beyond his control change (or even for something as mundane as the cameraman suggesting a better shot – but make sure it IS better). Things do change, so be prepared to adapt accordingly.

After the Main Event

If it’s live, take the crew out for a meal/drink, and wait to see what the papers say next morning. But if it’s recorded, you have a chance to tidy it by editing. If it’s on film, it’s probably time to think of more changes. You might well have to do all that thinking again, particularly if you’re making a documentary. Interviewees won’t give you what you expect; if your interviewer is good, you’ll get more; conversely you might get less. Digressing for a moment, it’s worth noting that many interviewees have something interesting (and relevant) to your programme that they seem to omit to mention. I try to get a guest alone for a quiet drink somewhere during the research period. It’s quite amazing what some of them eventually say. Similarly, for certain types of programme, the silent interviewer will often get a wonderful confession or story out of a person when a pushy one won’t. And there are even bigger changes. There is a tendency to think that because you wrote it in your original script that it must be so. You must be prepared to change tack radically at this stage. And at every stage. Anyway, do all the thinking exercise again. Be brutal with your content. And let the editor (film or VT editor, that is) get on with it. An editor who is left to edit will often come up with a better result than one who has the director breathing over his shoulder, and at least he’ll add to your epic. He will be brutal with your content. Forget that shot that took three days to get. If it doesn’t tell the story, it’s better on the cutting room floor. On the other hand, if it does tell the story, put it back in, you’re in charge. But do it nicely. Now it’s time to write the commentary, and again, you have to start again. Pretty certainly any and every sentence you wrote in your original scripUtreatment will have to be changed. At all stages, in a professional environment, you will be supervised by a producer or executive producer. His is not only (hopefully) a more expert brain, but he isn’t as close to the film as you are. Respect his judgement. He is seeing it dispassionately, as your viewer eventually will.